In one of yesterday's posts, I wrote about how conventional wisdom develops around what "people of faith" want, and how "people of faith" usually means "evangelicals." Today there's more evidence of the Obama administration's overemphasis of evangelicals, as USA Today's Cathy Grossman reports from the Religion Newswriters Association's annual conference about a panel on Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The panel included two members of Obama's faith-based Advisory Council, the Rev. Frank Page, the past president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, the president elect of the National Council of Churches (NCC). The SBC is a conservative evangelical denomination (which claims to be the largest non-Catholic denomination in the country) that was one of the leading architects of the religious right; the NCC is an umbrella organization of mostly mainline Protestant denominations who tend to be more liberal.
From Grossman's post:
Page says he's talked privately with the White House about issues highest on his priority list, such as insisting no federal funding go to abortion. But the advisory panel itself, where he's on the committee to encourage responsible fatherhood, seems to be tasked with far less urgent issues and spend most of its meeting times listening to government functionaries, rather than offering ideas or perspectives.
The Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president elect of the National Council of Churches, has a different frustration. Not only does she wish they had meatier issues --such as immigration reform, refugees, housing -- to deal with, but, she says, the Mainline Protestant churches of the NCC don't even get those private White House calls.
The SBC's chief lobbyist, Richard Land, is joining with the Salem Radio Network-sponsored effort to stop health care reform. The NCC and some of its member churches are part of a pro-reform effort that is pushing members of Congress to pass a reform bill. Yet for David Brody, the story there is that "progressive evangelicals" are leading the pro-reform effort -- even though it's composed of mostly mainline Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim groups.
One of the big issues for evangelicals -- whether they are "progressive" like Jim Wallis, or conservative, like Page -- is coverage for abortion services in health-care reform. And Page made it clear that the White House has sought his counsel on that. Perhaps it was trying to enlist him as an emissary to defuse charges from the religious right that under reform, taxpayer dollars will fund abortions. But the religious right is going to press this charge no matter what is actually in the bill, and will dream up other scare tactics, like the preposterous claim that "US taxpayer dollars will be paying for Planned Parenthood clinics in your children's school." (Now what is scarier than a socialist, baby-killing takeover of our public schools?)
To be clear, I don't think the White House should solicit the assistance of any religious group to help pass health care reform -- if that agitation comes from the outside, fine. But focusing on allaying the fears of one religious group (anti-choice evangelicals), and elevating their concerns over those of other religious groups (like many of the NCC's member churches) who believe abortion is a woman's personal choice, is problematic.
The conventional wisdom about mainline Protestantism is that it's "dying." Whether that's true or not -- and numbers differ, but ask a pastor and s/he would say pew head counts are not the measure -- is of no moment for politicians' "religious outreach." Obviously, the outreach is cynically geared toward cultivating voters. But political calculus is no excuse for breaching the constitutional requirements for religion-neutral government.
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